By Ethan Colbert
Standing in the courtroom that they soon hope to preside over as Associate Circuit Court Judge, candidates Mark Fisher and Milan Berry attempted to differentiate themselves in the minds of voters ahead of the November 6 General Election.
During the forum, each candidate was allowed two minutes to give an opening statement, two minutes to respond to each question from the moderator, and two minutes to give a closing statement.
Berry, the Republican Party’s nominee, used his opening statement to rehash the past three months of campaigning.
“I kicked this campaign off at Paynesville,” Berry said. Berry formally launched his campaign from a raised platform during candidate speeches at the Paynesville Homecoming celebration held in August.
“I made a promise to Pike County that I would conduct this campaign with integrity and dignity,” Berry said in his remarks earlier this month. “I believe that the very next day we went to Champ Clark and I promised the people of Pike County that I would always be fiscally conservative.”
Berry then acknowledged that his campaign has been “low budget.”
“I would like to tell you the way that I have conducted this campaign is an example of my fiscal conservatism,” Berry said. “I have set a budget and stayed within that budget. I set a low budget, I have ran a campaign that I am very proud of, with not a lot of money.”
Berry’s campaign committee, which is entitled “Milan Berry for Judge,” has reported to the Missouri Ethics Commission that as of eight days prior to the election the campaign has received $6,182.96 in donations and in-kind contributions.
In the aforementioned campaign finance reports, Berry is shown to have loaned his campaign money, including two loans on July 11 of $400 and $700. He also loaned his campaign $545.56 on July 27.
He made another loan on October 5, 2018 for $500.
Donations from out-of-state and out-of-county donors total $2,400.
Berry also discussed his speech to members of the Pike County Farm Bureau organization, where he said he talked about driving an 18-wheeler in order to pay for his college and law school education.
Fisher, the Democratic Party’s nominee and the county’s current Prosecuting Attorney, used his opening statement to talk about his tenure as the county’s prosecutor, specifically his open door policy.
“We have always had an open door policy,” Fisher said. According to Fisher, that is not necessarily the case with some of his colleagues across the state where concerned citizens have a difficult time getting to see their county prosecutor.
“If you don’t have an attorney, then you won’t get to see them,” Fisher said.
Fisher said he wants to bring that same open door policy to the judiciary as the county’s Associate Circuit Court Judge.
“I believe that is what we should be doing as public servants,” Fisher said. “A couple of people have said that is what we are, and when you elect us to office, then that is what we are. We are public servants.”
As part of his work as county prosecutor, Fisher says he has learned that being involved in the judiciary is not like other professions.
“I have given a lot of time to the county,” Fisher said. “I am up here working all hours of the day and night, because that is what it takes to get the job done.”
In his campaign to be the next Pike County Associate Circuit Court Judge, Mark Fisher has formed a campaign finance committee which is entitled “Committee to Elect Mark Fisher.”
This committee has reported to the state’s ethics commission that it has received $7,574.93 in cash contributions and donations.
Of those contributions, Fisher has received $514 from out-of-county donors.
He has made no loans to his campaign, though he has given his campaign committee $3,500.
On the issues
During the forum, the two candidates fielded questions from the moderator, Brent Engel. The questions ranged in scope from how judges should be tough on crime to the greatest problem facing the judiciary to the cause of a judicial backlog in the local circuit court system to the impact reduced state funding has on the local court system.
It was during this portion of the evening that both Fisher and Berry attempted to distinguish themselves before the voters, especially when it came to being fair on sentencing an individual.
According to Fisher, a judicial candidate should not promise to be “tough on crime.”
“To say you are tough on crime is something that politicians say,” Fisher said. “Judges should not.”
Instead, Fisher said that having the power to sentence someone to prison requires a mind capable of balancing what is “fair to the defendant, fair to the community, fair to law enforcement,”
“Quite honestly, I hesitate to say that I am going to be tough on crime as a judge,” Fisher said. “If you have someone that comes in on their first misdemeanor offense, then they may not deserve jail time. They may deserve probation. They may deserve community service. They may deserve some kind of a fine.”
He later went on to say that sending individuals to prison for lengthy sentences was not the answer either.
“We will have not accomplished a lot, except to have built more prisons,” Fisher said.
In his response to the question, Berry said that judges should understand how their sentence can affect “many different people in lots of different ways.”
“There are people who need to go to prison because they have committed horrible crimes,” Berry said. “There are also people who deserve probation and a chance to rehabilitate themselves.”
Berry added later that sentencing should be viewed by the judge as problem solving.
“The number one thing, as a judge, is fixing the problem,” Berry said. “Then, follow through it and punish it.”
The candidates also differed in their opinions to the next question, which asked them to identify the most pressing problem facing the local circuit court.
For Berry, the most glaring issue he sees is the backlog of cases awaiting hearings.
“The most pressing problem, I would say, is that it takes a long time to get to a trial,” Berry said. “I feel as if there is a backlog in cases and that we are setting things out six months, sometimes even longer.”
While the accused await their court date, Berry said they often remain in the custody of the county jail.
“I kind of look at the county jail as a kind of purgatory,” Berry said. “I don’t think someone should just sit there and wait nine months.”
According to Fisher, the most pressing problem facing the local judiciary has been restoring the public’s trust in the local court system.
“I think the most pressing problem, and I hate to say it, but I think the most pressing problem for the circuit has been solved,” Fisher said. “We had a circuit judge who had been suspended, and the community had lost faith in the circuit court judge.”
He later responded to the issue raised by Berry of the judicial backlog.
“Partially it is the time, but part of the problem is the defense attorneys,” Fisher said. “We will come to court and criminal defense attorneys will have never talked to their clients. We will have inmates lined up over here and we will be waiting two hours or longer sometimes for attorneys to talk to their clients. Attorneys are not going to the jail to visit them. They are not talking to them ahead of time. That is where the backlog is coming from. We can’t move those cases and that is something that has to change.”
Fisher then used his remaining time to advocate for treatment courts.
“The other thing that needs to change is that we need to try to implement more programs like the alternative treatment courts,” Fisher said. “As I said before, sending people to jail or to prison is not the answer. We have got to find solutions to the drug problems.”
Fisher then lamented the state’s cuts to mental health programs.
“A lot of the people we deal with have mental health issues,” Fisher said. “We need court systems that allow us to deal with those issues.”
Berry, who moved into Pike County less than three years ago, said he knows he is likely facing an uphill battle due to his lack of name recognition.
“If you want to know more about a candidate, then you should talk to the people who have been represented by me,” Berry said. “As I have said, I am a public defender. I represent indigent people in Pike County.”
According to Berry, his former clients will likely speak of him in good terms despite of what might have happened in the courtroom.
“If you come across someone, then ask them,” Berry said. “The reason that I do my job is that I listen to people. I listen to what they have to say. Normally they are incarcerated and in an orange jumpsuit, but I listen to them. I try to treat them fairly.”
In his conclusion, Berry said as a judge he would continue to listen, continue to apply the law fairly, to be patient and understanding.
Fisher, who grew up in Pike County and has spent the majority of his adult life in Pike County, said he hopes voters see that he has the breadth of knowledge and experience necessary to serve as next the Associate Circuit Court Judge for Pike County.
“One of the things that I kind of fell into, and I really didn’t mean to, is to talk mostly about the criminal side of the Associate Circuit Court Judge,” Fisher said. “The Associate Circuit Court judge is a probate judge, he does landlord-tenant disputes, he does collections actions, and in Pike County he does the juvenile court.”
According to Fisher, he is the candidate, who through his years in private practice with Philip Schaper, Jr., and his years as a county prosecutor, has experiences in each of those areas.
“When you look as to what you should want to have with a judge, one of the things you should make sure and see is that they have experience,” Fisher said. “Not just experience with one aspect of the law, but with all aspects of the law. I am the candidate who has that.”
Polls open at 6 a.m. on November 6 and will close at 7 p.m. Absentee voting is allowed at the Pike County Clerk’s office during regular business hours, which are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The office is open over the lunch hour and will be open November 3 from 8 a.m. to noon to allow for voting.
Of these two candidates, the candidate with the highest vote total will take the place of Judge David H. Ash, who is retiring from the Associate Circuit Court bench after many years.